This spring, I finally visited a place I’d wanted to see for years - Smith Falls State Park east of Valentine.

The park is home to Nebraska’s highest waterfall, Smith Falls, which is located on a tributary stream of the Niobrara River. The 70-foot falls are named for Frederic Smith, the first homesteader who owned the land around the falls in 1896.

The majority of Smith Falls State Park lies on the north side of the river. Primitive tent campsites are available, as are picnic tables, picnic shelters, restrooms, pay showers, a seasonal concession stand, and the park office/visitor’s center.

A large footbridge spanning the Niobrara provides access to the south side of the river where the falls are located. There’s a hiking trail, small picnic area, and wheelchair-accessible boardwalk leading up to the falls. The south side of the river is a day-use only area and closes at dusk.

Fishing is available in the Niobrara River which flows through the middle of the park. Smith Falls SP is also a popular destination with tubers, kayakers, and canoers. It serves as a convenient campground for those floating or paddling the Niobrara. Many local watercraft outfitters use the park as a take-out spot.

On an unseasonably warm late-April afternoon, my wife and I, along with Komet, visited Smith Falls. Since it was well-past noon when we arrived, we first enjoyed a picnic lunch under one of the shaded pavilions before exploring the falls. Komet stayed nearby as we inhaled chicken and roast beef sandwiches, which we shared with him.

Then it was off to the falls. Hiking with a leashed hunting dog sometimes requires a team effort, especially when that dog spots a pair of Canada geese walking along the riverbank. Komet pulled us towards the geese and then tugged us across the footbridge over the river and up the boardwalk to the falls.

The falls themselves were spectacular, even with the harsh afternoon sun shining down upon us. At the end of the boardwalk, steps lead down to a shallow pool beneath the falls.

Komet and I descended steps, and the dog enjoyed a cooling wade and refreshing drink of ultra-fresh water. Then he dragged us back down the boardwalk, across the river, and past the geese.

Komet was completely dry by the time we reached our vehicle parked outside the visitor’s center (which was closed at the time due to COVID-19). We were all exhausted.

Smith Falls is one of those places I wish I’d had more time to explore. I can only imagine how beautiful it is in autumn. We plan to return some day.

A vehicle park entry permit is required to visit Smith Falls SP. For more information about camping, call park headquarters at 402-376-1306 or email ngpc.smith.falls@nebraska.gov. Reservations must be made over the phone, though, as the park does not have online reservation capability.

Jarrod Spilger writes an outdoor column for The Independent.

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